Mistletoe, the same plant you kiss under at holiday time, may be an effective aid against certain types of cancer.
A semi-parasitic plant, mistletoe grows on a variety of common trees including apple, oak, elm and pine. As a traditional medicine, mistletoe was used by the Druids and the ancient Greeks, and was widely regarded as something of a cure-all.
The plant has been used for centuries in European herbalism for treating epilepsy, hypertension, headaches, menopausal symptoms, infertility, arthritis and rheumatism.
Since the 1920s, mistletoe has also been studied for its applications in treating various forms of cancer, especially solid tumors.
For people undergoing cancer treatments, the widely studied plant is often used as a complementary-based therapy. In Europe, mistletoe preparations are regularly prescribed for various types of cancers as its extract demonstrates anti-cancer activity when used against cancerous cells in the lab.
It’s been said that mistletoe extract enhances immune function, which increases the production of the immune cells. When administered as a form of therapy for cancer, the extracts are given by injection under the skin, into a vein or directly into a tumor.
The anti-cancer activity of mistletoe may be influenced by the host plant. Mistletoe growing on an apple tree, for example, may have a somewhat different chemical composition than mistletoe growing on an elm.
However, there does not seem to be any definitive research on which type of extract is preferable for which types of cancer.
Human clinical studies on mistletoe and cancer have been conducted in Europe, primarily in Germany. In a number of studies, mistletoe has demonstrated efficacy against cancer. However, critics in the United States regard these studies as either too small or improperly designed.
In one study conducted between 1993 and 2000, researchers examined the use of a mistletoe extract by the brand name Iscador in 800 patients with colorectal cancer. They were all treated with chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. Researchers found the patients treated with Iscador had fewer adverse events, better symptom relief and improved disease-free survival compared to patients who did not receive the mistletoe extract as adjuvant therapy.
This finding concurs with other research, that mistletoe therapy reduces the discomfort and undesirable symptoms of other traditional therapies, such as chemotherapy.
In 2002, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), initiated a clinical study of a mistletoe extract (Helixor A) in conjunction with the chemotherapeutic drug gemcitabine in patients with advanced solid tumors. In the study, the combination of the two showed low toxicity and health benefits in almost half the patients. In this case, mistletoe demonstrated its value as an adjuvant, helping to modify the chemotherapy.
At present time, two research groups have "investigational new drug" approval to conduct studies on the use of mistletoe extract for cancer. Their studies may further the cause of this treatment in the U.S. However, at this time, the FDA does not recognize the use of mistletoe to treat any form of cancer, and injectable mistletoe extracts cannot be sold in the U.S.